832/2021 - A Woman and the Irish Mail on Sunday and Extra.ie
The Press Ombudsman has found that the Irish Mail on Sunday and Extra.ie offered to take action which would have been sufficient to resolve a complaint that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached. He has found that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) were not breached.
On 11 April 2021 the Irish Mail on Sunday and Extra.ie published identical articles under different headings on a care home where it was claimed that administrative staff in a care home received Covid vaccinations by “posing as frontline staff”.
The complainant wrote to the editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday stating that as a non-frontline worker in the care home administration she could confirm that she had not been advised to misrepresent herself as a frontline worker in order to receive an earlier vaccine. The complainant requested an agreed retraction.
The Irish Mail on Sunday stood over the article as published in its entirety. It said that the claim in the article that administrative staff were told to pose as frontline workers was based “on quotes from a whistleblower” within the care home “who received such an instruction from management”. It added that the whistleblower’s claims “were subject to vigorous journalistic scrutiny at every stage”. Tying this complaint to another complaint about the same subject matter in a later edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday (which is the subject of a separate complaint) the newspaper offered to publish a clarification that one hundred workers “was the total potential number of workers misrepresenting themselves” rather than the actual number of workers
The complainant made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. She stated that “whilst a number of administration staff are working from home at present on Government directives, many like myself are in and out of the office”. She said she had the “potential to meet clients at any time”. She stated that she had filled in the correct category on the vaccine portal and that the phrase used in the article “told to pose as frontline workers on HSE portal” was an “untruth”. She said the newspaper article had caused her “extreme embarrassment and upset”. She claimed Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the newspaper stood over the articles and said that they did not breach the Press Council’s Code of Practice. The editor reiterated his willingness to engage with the complainant and repeated his offer to publish a clarification. The newspaper also offered to publish a follow up story that would include the point of view of the complainant.
The complainant responded by repeating that she had not been told to pose as a frontline worker by her management and she objected to “this inaccurate portrayal of dishonesty”. She made the point that the care home company she worked for operated in over 44 locations and it was possible that the advice given to the whistleblower reflected that person’s particular circumstances and were not applicable to the other 99 administration workers referred to in the article.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The claims in the headlines to the articles that administration workers were told to pose as frontline staff on the HSE portal was an over-statement and therefore a significant inaccuracy and a breach of Principle 1.1. However Principle 1.2 and 1.3 states
1.2 When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
1.3 When appropriate, a retraction, apology, clarification, explanation or response shall be published promptly and with due prominence.
The editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday offered to publish a clarification which would have addressed the over-statement of numbers. In addition he offered to publish a follow up report which would have included the complainant’s point of view. The complainant did not accept the editor’s offer. In my view, the offer to publish a clarification and a follow up article was sufficient to resolve this part of the complaint.
I have no doubt the complainant is a conscientious member of the administrative staff of the care home and was upset when the newspaper reported effectively (particularly in its headlines) that all members of the administrative staff had jumped the queue for vaccination. However, the clarification which the newspaper proposed to publish would have made it clear that not all staff had taken this course of action.
Principle 2.2 states
2.2 Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they are fact.
No evidence has been offered to me that suggests the newspaper published rumour or comment as fact. The research for the article fulfilled journalistic requirements. The complainant claimed that the article had been based on one whistleblower’s account. However the journalist in carrying out his research had spoken to the CEO of the service care provider company and other members of staff and had not relied on an unconfirmed report of one whistleblower. There was no breach of Principle 2.
This Principle states
The press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.
No evidence has been presented to me to support a claim that the article was based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. Equally I have no reason to believe that the newspaper did not take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The inaccuracy identified in the article was not due to misrepresentation or a failure to take reasonable care.
10 September 2021